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“Well, Everyone Has to Have a Birthday” — How Professor Dave Botches Probability

happy birthday dog
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This past Friday (May 19, 2023), Rice University professor James Tour “debated” (I use that word advisedly) YouTube personality and influencer David Farina (known as “Professor Dave”). The question up for discussion was “Are we clueless about the origin of life?” Tour took the position that the origin of life is a completely unsolved problem. Farina took the position that research in the origin of life is making good progress. Tour focused on the chemistry. Farina focused on discrediting Tour, calling him a liar and even a pathological liar over and over again. He also called Tour and his supporters clueless. (Does it take a pathological liar to falsely call someone a pathological liar? How clueless does one have to be to falsely call someone clueless?)

Farina’s antics got so wearisome that I could not watch the entirety of the debate. Indeed, I would not call it a debate. On the one hand, there was Tour trying to engage in substantive questions about prebiotic chemistry. And there was Farina, attacking him personally, both as someone completely unqualified to address the origin of life and as someone so biased by his religious beliefs as not to be trustworthy on scientific issues (Tour is unreserved in affirming his Christian belief). 

Citing Article Titles

The only science, such as it can be called, that I saw from Farina during the exchange was citing titles of origin-of-life articles that he claimed redressed the problems Tour was raising. But these seemed to be just arguments by irrelevant reference that fittingly complemented his arguments ad hominem. Farina gave no evidence that he understood the articles he was citing. It was as though origin-of-life researchers hostile to Tour had simply provided Farina with ammunition for the exchange.

My opinions are what they are, so form your own conclusions. Here is the exchange (“debate”). If you are able to watch the whole of it, give yourself brownie points for endurance. 

Farina’s performance in the exchange didn’t surprise me. It was consistent with what you see on his YouTube channel when he is promoting atheism, though I would say that in this case it was especially extreme. Was his scalding behavior intended to score points with his atheist supporters? Was it to boost his number of YouTube followers? I wonder how his performance would be interpreted by the unwashed middle, i.e., those who have no particular stake in the origin-of-life controversy. He was arrogant and cocky. I have to think that this didn’t help him with those outside his circle. But who’s to say in this age of social media where sensibilities get so warped. 

To Command an Audience

Tour admitted at the start of the exchange that this was his first debate. I’ve seen him give talks on not just the origin of life but also his own research, and he is able to command an audience, not only with his knowledge but also with his stature. I myself have debated atheists, such as Michael Shermer and Michael Ruse, but those debates were always respectful. To have your interlocutor, like Farina, hurling insult after insult at you has to be disconcerting. And it shifts the focus from the substance of what should be discussed to the credibility of the participants. Should Tour have attacked Farina for his limited chemistry background, which includes only a bachelor’s in chemistry and a master’s not in chemistry per se but in chemistry and science education? Tour is a Nobel laureate caliber chemist. 

Should Tour really have had to endure the constant jibes of Farina? Farina was at Rice at Tour’s invitation, so Tour’s natural inclination would have been to play the gracious host. He even started the exchange with a gift to Farina. But still, Farina should have been reined in. I suspect Tour was unprepared for the vitriol he encountered. I lay some of the responsibility for Farina’s continued shameless display on the moderator. Early on, the moderator should have told Farina that the audience by now had gotten the point that Farina thought Tour was a “pathological liar,” and that he should confine himself to the question that was the topic of the debate. The moderator should also have put an end to the constant interruptions of Tour by Farina.

Information and Probability

Two years ago I was interviewed by Tour for his YouTube channel about my work on information and probability. What prompted Tour to interview me was some probability arguments by Farina against him. Here’s my interview with Tour:

The YouTube program by Farina that prompted Tour to interview me is this one. At the 31-minute mark, Farina makes a probability argument dismissive of small probabilities in design inferences. When I reject Farina’s discussions of origin-of-life chemistry, it’s as an informed layperson and yet as a non-expert. But when I see how Farina botches his discussion of probability, a field in which I am expert, it suggests to me that either he is confused or he is so committed to his atheist agenda that he will bend any argument to serve that agenda. Farina seems obsessed with Tour, having posted nine YouTube videos against Tour.

At the 31-minute mark, Farina offers the following analogy to argue against inferring design on the basis of small probabilities:

Let’s say 10 people are having a get-together, and they are curious as to what everyone’s birthday is. They go down the line. One person says June 13th, another says November 21st, and so forth. Each of them have a 1 in 365 chance of having that particular birthday. So, what is the probability that those 10 people in that room would have those 10 birthdays? Well, it’s 1 in 365 to the 10th power, or 1 in 4.2 times 10 to the 25, which is 42 trillion trillion. The odds are unthinkable, and yet there they are sitting in that room. So how can this be? Well, everyone has to have a birthday.

But Farina here misses the key second component of design inferences: they do not just require improbability but also specification (namely, conformity to an independently given pattern). Farina’s pattern of birthdays is completely unspecified. Imagine, instead, that each of these ten people had reported that their birthday is January 1. Such a coincidence would be independently given in virtue of its short description, such as “everyone has the same birthday” or “everyone was born New Year’s Day.” It would therefore constitute a specification. By combining small probability and specification, this coincidence would therefore have called for an explanation other than chance. It would not, in that case, be enough to say, as Farina did, “Well, everyone has to have a birthday.”

Farina exudes confidence in the absence of deep knowledge and understanding. In fact, his expertise is quite limited. But he’s a quick study at getting down “industry” talking points. And he can marshal titles, abstracts, and authors associated with research articles to suggest that whatever he wants to assert has in fact been established or is on the verge of being established. But as a YouTube influencer, his main incentive is to play to the gallery. And as an apologist for atheism, his interest is not in advancing science but in using a warped materialistic conception of science as a club to beat religion and religious believers. 

I’ll be interested to see what the aftermath of this exchange will be. As of yesterday it had 11,000+ comments on its YouTube video. So it hit a nerve.

This article is cross-posted from BillDembski.com.